Use your camera to document family history research

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Sept. 7 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Look at the base, top, sides and back of headstones. In addition examining the inscription, look around the headstone for other important information that can be inscribed about the individual, family, maker of the headstone and writings of the deceased.

Take eye-level pictures of headstone inscriptions. When shooting headstone inscriptions, try to take the photo of the inscription at eye level. You will find information much easier to read.

Can't find a family member's gravesite? See if you can talk to the sexton and ask to see the cemetery plot map. The sexton may have records you can photograph. Some cemeteries bury several layers deep to conserve space. In these situations, the headstone on top may only be for one of the several persons buried in the plot. Sometimes headstones are not available because the family is too poor for a marker, but the sexton will have details of who is buried where.

Take time to clear grass and other foliage away from a gravestone's inscription before taking a photograph. Clear any cut, dried grass away. If a branch has grown over the marker, pull it back. Clear overgrown grass to the edge of the marker or headstone. Important information or epitaphs may be separated from the main inscription (for example, a bronze marker denoting group or religious affiliation or service in a branch of military or in a specific war).

Use a little chalk for the hard-to-read, old headstones. Letters on the old stones are often barely legible. Take a little piece of white (or black or any other dark color) chalk and fill letters. Or rub the white chalk on the flat surface next to the letters.

Older stones tend to lean or slant. Tilt the camera to the angle of the stone, and your image will straighten up nicely.

Shoot black and gray polished marble at an angle. Dark polished headstones are sometimes hard to read or can reflect a camera's flash, making the image illegible. Shoot polished stone at an angle and then view on LCD for clarity. Reshoot at a different angle if needed.

A flash might help with shaded headstones or on cloudy days. If it's difficult to read the inscription in a photo you've just taken, try the flash. It should provide just enough extra light to fill in the dark shadows so you can read the lettering. Approach from various angles, if necessary.

A soft brush or natural sponge with water can help remove surface soil. Gentle brushing should remove surface dirt and bird droppings. Never use hard objects or stiff brushes to clean the stone.

Try sponge and water on light-colored stone. The water will darken the inscription on the stone.

Keep a written record. Some items that can contribute to a written record include location, a map of the cemetery with the stones numbered, time elements (time of day, date and frame number) and transcription of the epitaph. Post your photos of headstones on family websites or public sites such as Virtual Cemetery or Dead Fred.

When you take the time to adequately prepare for your field research, you will find greater success and better insight into the next steps you need to take in your research on the Internet and in the field.

Editor's note: The original version of this story posted on Sept. 7, 2013 failed to properly attribute all source materials, which violates our editorial policies. The story was revised on March 17, 2014 and attribution to original sources were added. A version of this column also appeared in the print edition of the Deseret News on Jan. 16, 2014. The Deseret News demands accuracy in attribution and sourcing and considers any lapses to be a serious breach of ethics. The Deseret News is no longer publishing Barry J. Ewell's writings.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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